I recently received a question from a reader asking me to comment about the NT phrase “born again” with respect to its relationship to “saved” language in the NT. What follows are a few thoughts.
Here was the question:
“My question, that I hoped you would get to in above threads, is the difference between two terms, one of which you’ve spoken frequently and the other none at all. You’ve spoken extensively about ‘being saved,’ but have made no mention in your very valid arguments as to ‘being born again.’ The reason I bring this up is a teaching I heard a few months ago that states the number of times been or being saved are small compared to the term born again. I contend that we aren’t saved until after we die because the context of the savedness is the fact we don’t endure the second death and so we don’t experience ‘being saved’ from it until the first death occurs. On the other hand, the bible speaks much about being born again which happens in the here and now while alive. I won’t go into all the rabbit trails associated with this term as to it’s evidenced by our obedience to Christ after being born again and the fact that there’s a huge difference between knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus in an intimate and personal born again relationship.”
To start, I’d say that it doesn’t matter how many times this or that phrase occurs in the NT. Meaning isn’t determined by counting; neither is the importance of a term or phrase.
It isn’t hard to find out how many times phrases or words occur. Let’s start with the “born again” language — which in Greek doesn’t say “born again” but rather “born from above.” The combination of this particular verb lemma with this particular adverb occurs two times: John 3:3 and John 3:7. The general meaning of the phrase isn’t difficult to discern. It follows from what is the referent of “above”. The Gospel of John, from whence the two occurrences come (and from the same chapter) answers that question in John 3:31-32 – “He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony.” The parallelism in v. 31 shows us that “above” = “heaven”. Heaven of course is the dwelling place of God. The person in v. 32 who came from heaven is of course Jesus throughout the Gospel of John.
All this means that the phrase “born from above” (poorly translated “born again”) means to be spiritually born into God’s family (which birth must be spiritual because God is a spirit – John 4:24). I would hope readers know that entrance into God’s family centers on being in Christ, God’s son, which comes from faith in the work of Christ on the cross (or, as I’d put it prior to the cross in NT days, “loyalty to Yahweh, the God of gods, incarnate in Jesus Christ, rejecting all other gods and self merit” – a clear faith statement).
In any event, the phrase “born from above” refers to being a member of God’s family, born of heaven as it were. Without rabbit trailing, I think the sonship language is important in specific ways to communicate specific connections back into the Old Testament. Those of you who have read The Myth That is True draft will know what I mean. To be found in God’s family, of course, means escape from the second death, to pick up on the questioner’s note. His wording (to my ear) speaks to the “staying in the faith” issue (aka, “losing salvation or not” issue) which I have addressed elsewhere. In a nutshell: No one is in heaven who did not believe/was not believing (at the time of death, again for the questioner here), and no one is in hell who did/was.” This state of belief was demonstrated not by moral (behavioral) perfection, but by the heart’s loyalty to the true God / the true God incarnate. It works the same way across testaments. It had nothing to do with merit. If you aligned yourself with some other God, you were disloyal to the true God and your lack of belief/faith was evident.
(In this respect, I don’t see how one phrase or the other in the question is more “this life” than the other).
The “born from above” phrase is is but one perspective of salvation. Another (and there are more than two) is the “saved” language. I don’t see it in any way oppositional to the “born from above” language. The phrases describe the same status from different perspectives and to communicate specific ideas or threads drawn from earlier OT theology. To get a glimpse of that, we’d need to be asked “saved from what?”
In simplest terms, it referred to being saved from life apart from the true God (which was, ultimately, death), the judgment of the true God, separation from the true God, etc. The OT of course speaks in apocalyptic terms in that regard, of the Day of the Lord. I mention this because most of the “being saved” language in the NT comes from the OT. (The phrase occurs 13 times in the NT, not always in a context of spiritual salvation). This phrase has no superiority over the “born from above” language in that OT people were still in God’s family (“my people” – Israel is called “God’s son” for example in Exod 4:23). Membership in God’s family is a theological idea in the OT despite being worded differently. Those outside God’s family, doomed to destruction if they refuse loyalty to the true God, are commonly referred to as/by “the nations” (i.e., the nations other than Israel). Again, I won’t rabbit-trail to the clear divine council worldview theology that has the disinheritance of the nations at Babel (cf. Deut 32:8-9, reading with the Dead Sea Scrolls and LXX). To be “saved” from Yahweh’s judgment, one had to be part of Yahweh’s family. For the NT, the question “why are some saved?” would be, in the context of this post, “because they are members of God’s family, being in Christ, also described as being born from above by embracing Jesus as Yahweh incarnate.”